2016 Hitter Contact-Quality Report: AL Center Fielders

Our position-by-position look at hitter contact quality using granular exit speed and launch angle data grinds on. Last time, it was National League left fielders; this time, American League center fielders. There isn’t much doubt as to the greatness of Mike Trout, but if you wanted to sum it up in one article, this might be the one. There are other great hitters in the game, likely one or two at least fractionally better than the pride of South Jersey, but once you take positional effects into account, well… read on.

The players below are listed in Adjusted Production order. Adjusted Production expresses, on a scale where 100 equals average, what a hitter “should have” produced based on the exit speed/launch angle of each ball put in play. Each player’s Adjusted Contact Score, which weeds out the strikeouts and walks and states what each player should have produced on BIP alone, is also listed. Here goes:

AL CF BIP Profiles
Trout 91.7 92.4 95.3 88.3 1.0% 35.7% 22.1% 41.2% 170 20.1% 17.0% 171 177 40.5%
A.Jones 89.5 89.6 94.2 87.3 3.4% 37.2% 16.5% 42.9% 107 17.1% 5.8% 96 108 40.4%
J.Bradley 91.2 94.2 95.5 87.4 3.8% 30.6% 18.4% 47.3% 112 22.5% 9.9% 118 107 46.0%
Desmond 91.5 91.3 96.4 90.1 2.4% 23.6% 20.6% 53.4% 121 23.6% 6.5% 106 104 31.2%
Naquin 91.5 92.4 92.7 90.8 2.4% 27.7% 23.4% 46.4% 139 30.7% 9.9% 135 103 37.6%
Cain 89.2 87.8 89.9 90.8 2.5% 27.5% 22.7% 47.3% 94 19.4% 7.1% 98 94 34.4%
Kiermaier 88.8 88.6 93.5 88.5 9.4% 28.2% 20.6% 41.8% 85 17.9% 9.7% 104 94 49.5%
Maybin 88.5 84.9 93.8 88.2 1.1% 20.6% 21.7% 56.5% 78 17.6% 9.2% 120 86 31.1%
Ellsbury 87.4 84.3 92.7 87.7 4.3% 26.6% 22.8% 46.4% 70 13.4% 8.6% 91 85 39.2%
Pillar 87.6 85.7 94.2 85.9 5.3% 28.6% 20.5% 45.6% 78 15.4% 4.1% 80 81 39.0%
L.Martin 88.2 87.2 91.4 89.0 4.2% 32.6% 19.9% 43.2% 87 25.9% 7.6% 88 76 45.8%
Marisnick 86.9 84.3 90.5 89.0 5.6% 29.9% 19.3% 45.2% 88 26.7% 5.1% 58 70 44.0%
Rosario 88.1 91.7 94.1 82.4 2.4% 32.0% 19.3% 46.3% 87 25.7% 3.4% 86 69 36.1%
Shuck 84.9 83.6 90.3 85.3 4.5% 26.7% 15.8% 53.0% 46 8.7% 5.0% 44 59 36.2%
Burns 82.8 76.5 86.0 86.4 6.4% 21.3% 19.1% 53.2% 48 11.1% 3.0% 52 55 31.5%
AVERAGE 88.5 87.6 92.7 87.8 3.9% 28.6% 20.2% 47.3% 94 19.7% 7.5% 96 91 38.8%

Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, wRC+ and Adjusted Production, which incorporates the exit speed/angle data. Each hitter’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each hitter’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.

Cells are also color-coded. If a hitter’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average, the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text.

It should be noted that individual hitters’ BIP frequency and authority figures correlate quite well from year to year, with one notable exception. As with pitchers, individual hitters’ liner rates fluctuate quite significantly from year to year, for all but a handful of hitters with a clear talent (or lack thereof) for squaring up the baseball.

Projecting performance based on BIP speed/angle opens us up to a couple biases that we didn’t need to address when evaluating pitchers. Pitchers face a mix of pull- and opposite-field-oriented hitters, more and less authoritative hitters, etc. Hitters are who they are each time they step up to the plate, and we must choose whether or not to address their individual tendencies.

I have adjusted the projected ground-ball performance for hitters who meet two criteria. First, they’ve recorded over five times as many grounders to the pull side than to the opposite field and, second, they exhibit a resulting deficiency in actual versus projected grounder performance. Such hitters’ projected grounder performance was capped at their actual performance level. Such hitters’ Adjusted Contact Scores and Adjusted Production figures are in red fonts.

I have decided not to adjust for the other primary factor that can skew actual versus projected performance based on exit speed/angle — namely, player speed. We’re attempting to assess hitter contact quality here; let’s keep speed/athleticism separate. As a result, we’ll see some slow, hard-hitting-to-all-fields sluggers overperform on this metric, and some more athletic players underperform. Contact quality is just part of offensive baseball; let’s attempt to isolate and evaluate it on its own.

As a group, even with Trout included, American Leaue center fielders were less productive than their NL counterparts last season. This further amplifies the great distance between Trout and the pack in the junior circuit. What truly sets him apart offensively? The answers might surprise you.

The sky-high walk rate is a huge deal, especially vis-à-vis his declining strikeout rate, which is superb for a power hitter. This K/BB foundation offers him plenty of margin for error with regard to contact quality. Margin for error that he doesn’t need. Trout’s contact authority is good, but not great; in fact, it was down a bit this past year from 2015. The amazing data point is his minuscule pop-up rate, especially when paired with a fairly high fly-ball rate. Lots of fly balls usually drag along unwanted pop ups with them. Not so with this guy: his pop-up rate was in the sixth and fifth percentiles, respectively, among AL hitters the last two seasons.

As recently as 2014, I had some creeping concerns about Trout’s offensive game. He was whiffing, pulling and popping up too much, basically out of nowhere. The great ones make adjustments, and Trout has made them — and quickly. He’s going to be really good for a really long time.

Now on to the mere mortals playing the center-field position in the AL. Adam Jones is probably overrated; he’s not the star some envision him as being. He’s still pretty good, and is showing signs of improvement around the edges. First and foremost, he plays every single day. No, he doesn’t walk, but in 2016 his BB rate actually moved into the average range for the first time in his career, while his solid K rate continued to decline. He maddeningly doesn’t hit liners; his percentile rank in that category has been in single digits for three years running now. His wRC+ fell short of his Adjusted Production for one major reason last season: he was unlucky in the air, batting just .274 AVG-.787 SLG (73 Unadjusted Production) despite underlying data that supported a 111 mark. He might always leave you wanting more, but I’ll take a 100-110 wRC+ true-talent offensive center fielder who answers the bell every day.

Jackie Bradley Jr. has finally emerged as the core player the Red Sox expected him to become. He batted an exceptional .486 AVG-1.432 SLG (237 Unadjusted Production) on fly balls, but Fenway is a fly ball’s best friend; adjusted for context, that figure plunges to 169. That’s the reason for the difference between Bradley’s wRC+ and Projected Production figures. There’s still more offensive upside to Bradley’s game; his fly-ball and liner rates have room to grow, and his K and BB rates are both moving in the right direction.

So, let’s see. Ian Desmond qualified as a center fielder for the Rangers in 2016… and will move abruptly to the wrong end of the defensive spectrum as a first baseman for the Rockies in 2017. OK. A rough go in a contract season in 2015 delayed his big payday, but he rebounded thanks to an uptick in his liner rate and a corresponding downtick in his K and pop-up rates in Texas. His batted-ball authority was solid across all BIP types; his Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores were all comfortably above average, at 170, 114 and 123, respectively. They need to be, as his K/BB foundation, despite the improvements, is still quite weak. Coors Field will help him, but not as much as it does others, as his fly-ball rate has always been low. If his 2016 enhancements don’t stick, he could be a major disappointment in Colorado.

Here’s the 2016 Lucky Player Alert. Tyler Naquin’s actual performance as indicated by his Unadjusted Contact Scores far exceeded his adjusted marks across all BIP types (248 vs. 148 Fly Ball, 130 vs. 101 Liner, 156 vs. 136 Grounder, 191 vs. 139 Overall). Now, 139 is still a really nice Adjusted Contact Score, but when you strike out over 30% of the time, every bit is needed to simply make you an average offensive player. In addition, his liner rate can be expected to regress downward moving forward. Bottom line: he’s got to do something about that K rate. Look where the others with high K rates rank on the above list.

I mention the volatility of line-drive rates at least a couple times in each one of these articles. Still, there are some players with a knack for maintaining high — or low — liner rates over the long haul. Lorenzo Cain appears to be one of those who routinely squares up the baseball. From 2014 to -16, his seasonal liner rate percentile ranks were 78, 78 and 80. Pretty consistent. Cain has also tended to hit his grounders harder than the league average over the years. Such players, especially when they run well, tend to have high batting-average floors. Cain is what he is, but a well above-average defender with average to slightly above-average offensive ability for his position is good enough for me.

Kevin Kiermaier represents the current defensive gold standard at this position. Offensively, it’s a mixed bag. On the good side, his BB rate shot upward in 2016, and his overall authority has crept into the average range. There are some major red flags, however. That pop-up rate is downright scary, and he has evolved into an extreme pull hitter. He’s the only one of this group to “earn” an extreme grounder-pulling penalty, though it was admittedly a small one. Now, I’ll take 94 Adjusted Production with stellar defense, but there’s plenty of bat risk here if he doesn’t make some adjustments.

Even Luckier Player Than Tyler Naquin Alert. Cameron Maybin has been on the move quite a bit lately, splitting 2016 between Detroit and Atlanta, and now heading west to play for the Angels in 2017. He was ridiculously fortunate on both liners (141 Unadjusted vs. 102 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (203 vs. 98) last season. Sure, he’s fast, but .344 AVG-.367 SLG on the ground? Even if you give him that, .780 AVG-1.051 SLG on liners? There’s good luck, and then there’s Maybin’s 2016. Still, he should be an upgrade over the flotsam the Angels ran out to left field last season.

What has it come to for Jacoby Ellsbury? Well, despite a very low K and an elevated liner rate, Ellsbury hits the ball so weakly that he ranks as a below-average offensive player at a weak offensive position. If not for his premium speed (134 Unadjusted vs. 98 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score), it would have been even worse. His Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was a meager 45; it’s tough to produce when there’s no threat of damage in the air, even at Yankee Stadium. He’s played his entire career in parks that have masked his offensive shortcomings, but even Coors wouldn’t mask them now.

In reality, Kevin Pillar and Ellsbury are the same offensive player at this point. Pillar’s Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score was 44, almost identical to his Yankee peer. He hit his liners quite hard — just as hard as Adam Jones, in fact — but that and a relatively low K rate are about all as far as positives go. As long as he’s a well above-average defender, he’s an asset on balance. The second the glove slips, the Jays need to move on.

Leonys Martin bounced back a bit with the bat in his first season with the Mariners. His wRC+ was quite a bit higher than his Adjusted Production, however, largely due to his speed, which isn’t captured by this type of analysis. He batted .310 AVG-.326 SLG (163 Unadjusted Production) on the ground, while his granular data supported a lower, if still strong, 122 mark. His offensive foundation is shaky; he’s got his high K rate pulling in one direction, and strong grounder authority pulling in the other. I wouldn’t expect further improvement with the bat if I were a Mariner fan.

It gets pretty dicey down here at the bottom of this list. Jake Marisnick is a nice defensive player miscast in an everyday role. His K/BB foundation is poor, and he has a nagging pop-up problem as well. He’s basically a lesser version of Martin with the bat. He’s a big strong kid who looks like he should hit for some power, but his is a very inefficient stroke. Marisnick is a nice complementary player to have around, but the Astros are now past the stage where they can be giving him lots of at-bats.

One more lucky player for the road. Eddie Rosario somehow batted .437 AVG-1.070 SLG (153 Unadjusted Contact Score) in the air and .258 AVG-.270 SLG (113) on the ground despite underlying data supporting much lower 102 and 64 marks. His grounder authority was among the lowest in either league, way down (believe it or not) in Kris Bryant territory. There is some talent here; perhaps the new regime can get to work on that horrific K/BB foundation and give him a chance to succeed.

J.B. Shuck somehow qualified for this list. He’s not a regular in virtually any circumstance, earning a 36 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact figure and 46 overall. Even when you strike out under 9% of the time, that’s not going to work, even with some expected positive regression in his ultra-low liner rate.

Then there’s Billy Burns. His overall, fly-ball and liner exit speeds were over two full STD below league average. Like Kiermaier, his extreme pop-up rate is way out of whack with his relatively low fly-ball rate. He is clearly not a major-league-caliber ball-striker; even his speed can’t save him. There’s a place for him as an extra man in the right situation, but that’s about it.

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